Years ago I spoke to a group of Christian workers on what it means to be a “minister of the New Covenant.” It turned out to be one of the most unforgettable mornings of my life. The message was transcribed on request, and I thought it would be a good idea to divide it into a series of blog posts.
In his final letter to Timothy, the young Christian worker at Ephesus, Paul writes: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
Paul “finished the race”, not only as a believer, but also as a Christian worker. It is clear that he expects his readers to do the same.
How did he do it? What was the secret behind his perseverance?
Paul’s Letter to the Church at Corinth
The answer is provided in another of Paul’s letters: His second letter to the Corinthians.
In the first verse of chapter 4 he says something remarkable: “We do not lose heart.“ We need to note that he is not talking about the Christian life, but about the Christian ministry. The whole context, starting from 2:12, deals with the issue of “ministers of the New Covenant”. Paul is therefore saying: “As ministers of the New Covenant, i.e. as Christian ministers, we do not lose heart, we do not give up.”
Is there a reason behind this statement? Can we learn something from him that we can apply practically as ministers of the New Covenant so that we, too, shall not lose heart? Does Paul give us some kind of underlying motive as to why he makes such a bold statement?
He does indeed.
If we read the sentence we shall see that it begins with Paul’s classic “therefore”. This tells us that the reason for his statement is to be found in the preceding passage. It is as though he is saying: “In the light of what I have just shared with you, it becomes clear why we do not lose heart.”
This observation is confirmed when we read the rest of the sentence: “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry…” The preceding passage is about the nature of the New Covenant ministry, and Paul is concluding his teaching by making a practical application: It is as though he says: “Therefore, since we have this ministry, a ministry that I have just explained to you, we do not lose heart.”
Our answer, then, is to be found in the particular nature of the New Covenant ministry of which we have become ministers. If we understand the peculiar nature of the ministry, we shall also discover the secret of persevering in the ministry.
1. The Nature of the Ministry
What is the nature of this ministry? The preceding passage makes it very clear: It is a ministry that reflects the glory of Christ. Note especially verse 18: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
Paul has an interesting way of explaining this ministry of reflecting the glory of Christ. He uses as his point of departure the great minister of the Old Covenant: Moses. In a sense we have the same ministry as Moses, Paul shows us, albeit with one very important difference: The ministry of the New Covenant is much more glorious.
The analogy can hardly be clearer. We, like Moses, have been somewhere. We have seen something, and we are affected. The glory of that which we have seen has rubbed off on us, and we are now returning to the camp as ministers of the covenant in all its glory.
We are, therefore, carriers of the glory. Like Uzza and Ahio (1 Chronicles 13) who moved the Ark of the Covenant in a cart, in all its power and glory, every Christian worker carries the New Covenant in all its power and glory into the assembly of the people. The focus is not on us, but on the glory of the treasure we are carrying. Our ministry can best be described as a ministry of reflection. We are not the treasure, the glory of God is. We are not the focus, the glory of God is.
This fact is confirmed by another verse earlier on in the same passage (2:14). Here the New Covenant ministry is described as a “triumphal procession in Christ” led by God, who through us “spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him”.
The picture that comes to mind is that of the priest carrying a censer and spreading the fragrance of the incense. Once again, the minister is depicted as a mere carrier of something extraordinary, not as one extraordinary in and of himself.
There is, however, an important difference between Moses and us. When Moses returned from the mountain the radiance of the glory had to be veiled. It was too much to look at. But when the New Covenant is ministered, no veil is necessary.
We find the reason in 3:14: “Only in Christ is it taken away.” Verse 16 reads: “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”
Jesus Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant, which is why the glory is unveiled in the New Covenant. As a minister of the Old Covenant, Moses did not have this privilege. The glory, therefore, had to be veiled.
(Next Post: The Source of the Ministry)